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Our problems, our selves

Self-help books are seen as light reading for navel-gazers. Two new volumes show the category still carries weight.

By Julie McGonegal

We have all met them: those rare people who radiate goodness, exuding love and joy even in times of personal loss and hardship. Such exceptional individuals are muses for David Brooks in his recent book The Road to Character. In an excerpt published last April in the New York Times, for which he is a regular columnist, Brooks contrasts “resumé virtues” — status-oriented achievements celebrated by the marketplace — and “eulogy virtues”— qualities like generosity of spirit, kindness, compassion and capacity for love. 

Most of us, he claims, spend the majority of our lives cultivating the former without giving much thought to how we might nurture the latter. His idea has seductive appeal, and it has clearly hit a cultural nerve. The Times’ piece spread like wildfire on social media and is no doubt partly responsible for the book’s ascendancy on bestseller lists.

There is much in the work to value. Consider its critique of corporate culture: “The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions.” Few of us would be hard pressed to name a point in our lives when the external pressure to produce and consume distorted our relationships and inner purpose. Few of us have not had our sense of worth and well-being warped by the myth of meritocracy. That such a myth begins in the cradle is clear from Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, a classic picture book that sells little people on the idea that they can singlehandedly master the world. Brooks’s book is a kind of antithesis to all the clichéd advice doled out to youth; it invites readers to ask not what they can expect from life but what life expects from them. In this, The Road to Character is inspiring.

Unfortunately, it is also awash in contradiction. The book fits within the growing genre of self-help literature, though Brooks spurns books of this kind as boorish and backward. It makes the case that we each harness the power for personal transformation, but rejects individual autonomy as personally and socially ruinous. It puts forth a scathing critique of consumer culture but fails to ask how we can build not only a better character but a better world. At the heart of the problem is a denial of the way our personal characters — our desires, ambitions and imaginings — are powerfully shaped by the political and cultural environment in which we live. Thus Brooks recycles the myths he claims to reject: that we are each the protagonist in the drama of our own life story, the sole agents of action in our lives.

His book is structured around mini-biographies of the lives of “great” people — civil servant Frances Perkins, former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower and social activist Dorothy Day, among others. While these vignettes are occasionally absorbing, the book begins and ends with the self: self-discipline is elevated above social welfare; self-respect is confused with spiritual maturity. We forget that the Perkins and Eisenhowers of this world typically have a stable support system that those on the margins of society lack.

It’s tempting to conclude that the problem lies less with Brooks’s book than with the self-help genre as a whole. The category doesn’t enjoy a lot of cachet: seen as light reading for the self-obsessed, the texts in this popular niche market are often dismissed as intellectually and spiritually vacuous. But such generalizations aren’t entirely fair. Indeed, some point to the Bible as one of the earliest examples of self-help literature. If so, it illustrates the potential for self-help works to bridge the personal and the political. A more recent example is Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Unlike Brooks, Ricard explores the vital relation between personal transformation, community engagement and global responsibility.

The stark contrast between the two thinkers can be glimpsed in their concept of humility. Brooks defines it in exclusively personal terms: “Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time.” Ricard sees it in wider terms: “Humility is a component of altruism, since the humble person is naturally concerned about others.” Altruism, a term derived from the Latin word for “other,” is the glue that binds his massive tome of a book. Writing as a western-born practitioner of eastern Buddhism, Ricard argues that the spectre of selfishness threatens to destroy not only our inner peace but also our planet. Selfishness, he claims, is at the heart of all our social problems — civil war and violence, environmental degradation and economic disparity. And it is altruism that can save us.

The notion of the collective inherent in altruism helps Ricard to escape the limits of most self-help books. Altruism, for him, is not the exclusive domain of exceptional individuals but a feature of everyday life. The empirical evidence for its existence abounds, and he celebrates the benefits of its practice while documenting its prevalence and persistence. Citing the philosopher Norbert Elias, he insists that the increased interdependence of the world in an age of globalization demands that we extend co-operation and benevolence beyond our immediate circles.

Yet Ricard’s work suffers serious contradictions of its own. Chief among these is his failure to reconcile his claim that the systemic failures of modern capitalism are responsible for rapid environmental decline with his belief in big business as a potential harbinger of a sharing economy. Ricard is fuzzy on solutions to the infinitely complex problems he devotes the bulk of his book to detailing. One arrives at his long-awaited conclusion hoping for a fresh response to our current crisis — only to be disappointed. This is not to say that Altruism isn’t worth reading; it just isn’t the panacea to modern problems. But then to believe that one book, one person, has the answer to all that ails us is to fall into the individualist trap that ensnares Brooks and so much of the self-help genre.

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.

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